Agricultural experts are making a case for adopting agricultural biotechnology as crop production remains insufficient for both local consumption and exportation yet Rwanda’s economy relies on agriculture. Plant or agricultural biotechnology bio-technology can be defined as the use of tissue culture and genetic engineering techniques to produce genetically modified plants that exhibit new or improved desirable characteristics. Bio-technology has helped to make both insect pest control and weed management safer and easier while safeguarding crops against devastating diseases. According to the recent publication “Plant biotechnology: A key tool to improve crop production in Rwanda” published in African Journal of Biotechnology by Leonce Dusengemungu, Clement Igiraneza and Sonia Uwimbabazi, intensive and appealing discussions about agriculture economic importance, production of improved crops and the use of all necessary resources to ameliorate agricultural production need more attention. Agricultural experts are making a case for adopting agricultural biotechnology as crop production remains insufficient for both local consumption and exportation yet Rwanda’s economy relies on agriculture. Photo: Sam Ngendahimana. The study aimed at gathering the information on Rwanda’s agriculture based on different research reports and Rwandan’s government established policies to identify constraints to agricultural production faced by farmers and applicability of plant biotechnology. “Rwanda as any other Sub-Saharan African countries are in need of free-disease plantlets for highly cultivated crops and to achieve this, plant biotechnology holds the key to high agricultural productivity. Use of plant biotechnology has to be highly considered as a means to solve some agri-related problems since its benefits can speed up the economy and stimulate the research processes,” they said. According to the researchers, Rwanda’s farming suffers shortage of quality planting materials due to few production companies or organizations of good quality seeds. “It is desirable for farmers to use quality seeds that are of high value that can benefit them. That is why more proper seed storage units, tissue culture production units and other possible alternative methods to increase the number of quality planting materials are needed,” they said. The trio said that the use of biotechnology tools to protect seed distributed among farmers, biological control agents and testing varieties of seed identity and purity before their distribution are primary tools that can benefit African farmers. “In this context, it is recommended for developing African countries to start thinking about pursuing gene transfer to breed-disease and introduction of pest resistant varieties in order to meet the future food’s needs,” they recommended. The modern agriculture biotechnology, they said, is needed as the conventional agricultural research does not keep an equal distribution between the high demand of food and the supply chain. Despite the difficulties in sharing information between scientists across the country, they said, the information gathered about the current status of plant biotechnology in Rwanda from some researchers in Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB) have reported the use of tissue culture: in vitro cultivation of cash crops like banana, coffee, potato, sweet potato, pineapple, passion fruit, Tamarillo also known as a tree tomato. “Several private companies have also initiated in vitro production of crops including bananas. The effort made still does not provide enough for the high demand of plantlets from the farmers. Disseminating resistant varieties produced using plant breeding technology is highly recommended since most of the varieties that are brought from abroad sometimes fail to adapt,” the trio suggested. They suggest more research is needed to identify and use suitable domestic breeding techniques for popular varieties in the country, and this should be widespread to other crops since the only crops receiving research attention are common beans, bananas, cassava and sweet potatoes. Plant biotechnology status in Rwanda Rwanda’s plant biotechnology is mostly dominated by tissue culture of medicinal plants and micro-propagation of disease-free food crops mainly bananas, potato, sweet potato and cassava. “To ensure food security, appropriate measures to increase the capacity of plant biotechnology should be a priority,” they said. Tissue culture practiced in Rwanda is one of the techniques that is believed can solve agriculture production problems because it has so many advantages, one of them being the high multiplication of plantlets in a short time and space. The plants produced with tissue culture techniques are also known to be free of viruses and other diseases; thus, are all with high survival rate in the field. In Rwanda, University of Rwanda (UR), Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), INES-Ruhengeri, FAIM.CO are all among the few organizations that have undertaken the biotechnology programme, and it has been a few years now, but the impact of that program on Rwandan people’s livelihood is still debatable. “Further, it is mainly because the research that is conducted does not initiate the production of affordable products that can reduce the need of costly agrochemicals and deleterious effects of diseases and weeds thus promoting agricultural productivity,” they said. Considering the potential benefit that plant biotechnology holds, it should be considered in the framework of the agricultural sector at large perceiving scientific, technical, regulatory, socio-economic and political evolution, they recommended. It will be very wise to allocate necessary funds for experimentation and research of applicability of modern biotechnology programs: tissue culture, genetic engineering, use of GM crops, use of plant molecular markers especially in developing countries since the demand to apply that technology will always be high, and the future of agriculture will definitely depend on modern plant biotechnology, the study further says. Janvier Karangwa, the Marketing and Communication Specialist at Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board told Doing Business that , “ in Rwanda, biotechnology is used in breeding, rapid cleaning plant material multiplication via tissue culture technology, diseases diagnosis and surveillance management.” Will GMOs be adopted in Rwanda? The reason why farmers in most developed countries have adopted the use of GM crops is because they have seen a very positive income. According to researchers adopting GM crops will come with a lot of tangible benefits cutting down the number of herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals to control pests. However, Juliet Kabera, the Director General of Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) recently said that the institution is closely working with Rwanda Agriculture and Animal Resources Development Board (RAB) to ensure that any biotechnology that is used is safe. “We are the authority to handle biotechnology after Rwanda ratified Cartagena protocol to ensure bio-safety,” she said. She said that Rwanda has designed a bio-safety strategy to ensure Rwandans are conscious. “In the strategy we now have a draft of law on biosafety which is going to be discussed in the cabinet and later on in the parliament. We are establishing laboratories and raising awareness to be able to know what we are doing on the market especially when it comes to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs),” she said. According to RAB, to fight Potato late blight disease, a new variety of Irish potatoes, produced through biotechnology, which will not require using agro-chemicals could soon be imported and tried in Rwanda. According to researchers, in order to revolutionise the plant biotechnology industry in Rwanda and Africa as a whole, initiatives to build strong long-term policies to promote this technology starting by training individuals and increasing the scientific capacities and infrastructures that specialise in plant biotechnology should be recommended. “Rwandan government should reinforce its current agricultural policies: documenting the available plant breeds by increasing the number of community gene bank and installing proper research units in the whole country, renovating and improving the current plant breeding techniques and training the new generation of plant breeders, limiting the use of agrochemicals to protect the environment,” they suggest. Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) was recently launched in Rwanda with the aim of promoting biotechnology. OFAB, a project of African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. According to officials, the experiences and practices in the field of biotechnology will be shared in the countries of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Nigeria. OFAB is a partnership platform in Africa that contributes to creation of an enabling environment for biotechnology research, development, and deployment for the benefit of smallholder farmers in Africa. It aims to contribute to informing policy decision making processes on matters of agricultural biotechnology through the provision of factual, well researched and scientific information.